In the middle of the 15th century the wine industry was gaining momentum in southern Germany. The region was not previously known for its wine production, but the refinement of the ancient screw press helped create a blossoming industry in an otherwise challenging climate for viniculture.
Around this time a young entrepreneur began poking around in the production process of local vineyards. His interest was not centered on the silky alcoholic liquid itself, but instead on the wine press used in production.
The young man’s name was Johannes Gutenberg. Soon the mechanics of the wine press would become an integral part of the printing press, which turned the world upside down.
The humble wine press, introduced by the Romans, had been in existence for more than a millennium. It was associated with liquid pleasure and communal joy. But when applied in a new context with other supporting parts, the press solved a different and larger set of problems. Instead of having to painstakingly handwrite every letter on every page, books could now be printed with movable type, saving immense amounts of time and increasing the quality and accuracy of texts.
In less than half a century the screw press went from connecting handfuls of people around the dinner table through wine, to connecting millions of people across cities, regions and counties through books. Using the press in a new way completely transformed the way people communicated and played a large part in ushering in our modern world.
Today, the concept of a brand is at a similar inflection point. Traditionally, brands have been associated with marketing, advertising, and visual identities. Many companies house brand responsibilities together with communication in the marketing department. But this is an outdated notion, and one that doesn’t take advantage of the full potential of the brand to solve some of the bigger, broader problems that plague the modern organization:
If we have the courage to expand the way a brand is viewed, then the brand can be used to change the way businesses are managed and how people cooperate. It can be used to engage employees and to align customer experiences. And it can be used to create a sense of individual and organisational meaning.
The concept of a brand is, like the 15th century wine press, ripe for being applied in a new way. That new way is called brand orientation.
Brand orientation is a philosophy that places the brand and its purpose at the heart of the organisation. In a brand-oriented company, everything it does, both internally and externally, is a deliberate expression of the brand and what it stands for. Everything from products, services and the sales experience, to the internal working environment and recruitment policies — it’s all is designed to express and reinforce the brand.
The key to brand orientation is the alignment it achieves between the internal and the external realities of the organisation — between employees and customers. By placing the brand and its purpose at the center of organisational decision-making, employees have a central, lasting idea that guides their choices. Since everyone’s decisions revolve around a common idea, then the way in which employees deliver the customer experience will be consistent and distinct, which creates a stronger brand.
To understand why brand orientation can be so beneficial it’s helpful to revisit the definition a brand. A brand is a reputation based on a promise — in other words, a guarantee of a certain experience, outcome or feeling. A weak brand is one that doesn’t live up to its unique promise — when a company says one thing but does another. If the brand doesn’t live up to its promise then it can’t be trusted, and therefore it doesn’t attract, it’s doesn’t appeal, and it doesn’t last.
A strong brand, on the other hand, is one that lives up to its promise, and differentiates the company from competition. People can trust that every interaction with the company will be a distinct experience that lives up to what the company guarantees.
Brand orientation provides all of the ingredients to consistently deliver an experience that lives up to the brand promise. By operationalizing the brand in everything the organisation does, the core of the brand is deliberately expressed at every touchpoint in the customer experience, as well as in everything the company does internally. People are recruited based on it, the internal culture and ways of working are built upon it, and people are rewarded based on it. The brand becomes the company, and the company becomes the brand.
Maybe it sounds like brand orientation is the solution to end all of a modern-day company’s problems. In reality this is far from the truth — an organisation has to excel throughout its operations to have a chance of being successful. But the fact remains that being brand-oriented can solve many headaches of the typical corporation. And this is because of the underlying truths and timeless wisdom which it builds upon.
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher (and popularized in the film Gladiator), said more than two thousand years ago that “people who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time–even when hard at work.” He claimed that the “human soul degrades itself” when acting without purpose, and “even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal.”
Aurelius, like so many other enlightened individuals throughout history, believed that tying our actions to purpose gives life meaning and heightens the experience of life. In an organisational setting, this same dynamic is what explains the power of brand orientation. By making sure that our everyday actions as employees are tied to a specific purpose, then we’re able to feel a greater sense of meaning in our work-life and our overall existence. If the purpose is compelling enough and we perceive that our actions have a direct impact on it, then there is no limit to the energy and engagement it can create.
The notion of tying actions to purpose takes on another dimension in the context of overcoming obstacles. Whether it’s tackling a difficult project or overcoming a life-threatening situation, everyone faces challenges on a daily basis.
In the 1940s a psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl faced more struggles than most — he was separated from his family and was sent to a concentration camp during World War II. Reflecting on his heart-wrenching journey years later in his timeless book Man’s Search for Meaning, he claimed that a sense of purpose was the reason for his ultimate survival. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life”.
Frankl claimed that what people need, whether in everyday life or in a fight for survival, is “the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” In a brand-oriented organisation the daily struggles and strivings of its people are directed toward fulfilling the brand purpose, creating a sense of meaning for all involved.
Part of the magic of placing the brand at the heart of the organisation is that it allows people to align their behaviors to it. It provides a core idea around which decisions can be made autonomously, instead of having to define how every detail should be executed across the organisation.
This is not a new concept. Prussian general and military theorist Claus von Clausewitz was famous for popularizing the notion of the Schwerpunkt — roughly translated as “weight of effort” or “focal point.” Robert Coram, military historian and biographer, explains why the concept of the Schwerpunkt can be so powerful:
“…the commander is able to maintain a high operational tempo and rapidly exploit opportunity because he makes sure his subordinates know his intent, his Schwerpunkt. They are not micromanaged, that is, they are not told to seize and hold a certain hill; instead they are given “mission orders.” This means that they understand their commander’s overall intent and they know their job is to do whatever is necessary to fulfill that intent. The subordinate and the commander share a common outlook. They trust each other, and trust is the glue that holds the apparently formless effort together.”
Although life in a modern organisation is (hopefully) a less bloody and hierarchical affair, the same principle holds true for brand orientation — the shared common outlook, the purpose-filled mission orders, and the focal point of intent all help to direct people’s behaviors in a coherent way.
Somewhat paradoxically, these strictly defined directions can provide more flexibility and autonomy to employees. If the brand purpose is a reflection of the organisation’s ultimate goal and intent, then brand orientation provides a helpful framework from within which employees have the freedom to make their own brand-aligned choices. As the late advertising guru Norman Berry once said, “give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”
Meaning and direction are clearly timeless needs, as relevant today as they were on ancient Roman battlefields and in the Napoleonic Wars. In recent years this has been supported by considerable research. A 2013 study of more than 12,000 employees found that 50% lack a sense of significance and meaning in their work. Apparently, little has changed in the half-century since Viktor Frankl claimed that “people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning.”
This universal need for purpose has not been lost on Generation Y — people born from 1982 on onwards. “Emerging leaders are looking for one thing above all else in a career: purpose,” says Liz Maw, President of Net Impact. In the cutthroat war for talent, clearly articulating and living by a core purpose is a competitive advantage in today’s competitive environment. This has not been lost on global business leaders, with Tesla founder Elon Musk having said recently that “having a purpose certainly is going to attract the very best talent in the world.”
A clearly defined and expressed brand purpose not only aligns behaviors and attracts likeminded people, but it also creates advocates that promote the brand automatically and authentically. Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said “I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it’s not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you.”
Brand orientation might sound like a simple enough concept in theory, but in reality it is incredibly difficult to carry out. Creating an organisational culture that spurs people to act and behave in line with the brand across all touchpoints, locations and roles is no small feat.
If the definition of a company culture is the organisation’s ways of working that are “stable and strongly resist change”, then introducing brand orientation is per definition one of the most difficult things one can do, and explains why so few companies are brand-oriented.
But it is precisely because of its difficulty that brand orientation is so beneficial. It makes it challenging for competitors to imitate its way of working, it increases organisational commitment to making it last, and it makes it rewarding and fulfilling to bring to life.
In the rare instances where brand orientation transformation has been achieved, several key characteristics stand out that separate the failures from the successes.
Traditionally, brand management has belonged to the marketing department while talent management has been housed in the HR department. However, the only way to make brand orientation work is to put the brand at the heart of organisational decision-making so that it becomes the jurisdiction of the whole organisation. Brand management and talent management then don’t become two separate functions with two separate agendas — both revolve around the same set of ideas and concepts.
As explained by Kevin Keohane, author and business strategist, “we need to stop thinking about ‘brand’ as a marketing priority and ‘employer brand’ as an HR and talent priority. They are of equal importance, they need to be aligned, and it should no longer be a sense of an uneasy alliance as it can often seem to be.”
Aaron Hurst, purpose evangelist and CEO of Imperative, goes on to emphasize the point. “Marketing and HR have traditionally been the two core functions in a company concerned with people,” he says. “They both focus on how to attract and engage people in the mission of the company, and for a long time they have been able to operate in a largely disconnected fashion, but that is becoming less possible or desirable. Smart companies today have started to think of these roles in less siloed ways…By combining these functions, organizations are not only more efficient and effective, they become something far more important, more human-centered.”
Simply put, it is important to make a clear distinction between the talent agenda and the HR function, as well as separating the brand agenda from the exclusive realm of the marketing function. As stated by leadership professor and former EY Global Managing Director Mike Cullen, “the talent agenda shouldn’t be run by the HR function…The way I explain it is to position HR as a vertical and the people and talent strategy as a lateral.”
Brand orientation is, per definition, cross-functional — it applies to the whole company and it is an organisation-wide responsibility to uphold and maintain it. To succeed, the process of becoming brand-oriented has to be spearheaded by the one person with full cross-functional responsibility: the CEO. Throughout the change process, the CEO is nothing less than a linchpin and should take on the role of “ultimate ambassador” or “brand champion” through active, visible and authentic leadership.
The CEO can’t do it alone however, so the support of the management team is needed as well, as their functions collectively cover the entire organization. As explained by brand strategists Scott Davis and Michael Dunn, “without having brand accountability across the very top of an organization, decisions will most likely be under-supported. Senior management has to believe in the power of the brand and the need to manage it across the organization.” Brand strategist Austin McGhie agrees, stating that the management team “must become serious brand advocates or failure is all but assured.”
Although defining and articulating a brand purpose is a good first step, all purposes are not equal. For brand orientation to both effectively motivate employees and direct behaviors, the brand purpose needs to be centered on improving the lives of an external group of people — either customers or other stakeholders — in some way, shape or form.
The power that comes from focusing oneself towards the benefit of others has been known for millennia. For example, Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca was adamant that one’s purpose must be pointed outward, claiming that “no one can lead a happy life if he thinks only of himself and turns everything to his own purposes.” Viktor Frankl agreed: “The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
Similar examples are endless, and the message is clear — it is not enough just to have stated a purpose and reason for being. The brand purpose must be outward-focused, and set on accomplishing an improvement for an external group of people.
This ensures a customer-centric mind-set, but more importantly it gives a stronger, more fulfilling sense of purpose to every person in the organisation. By focusing outwards, the likelihood of success increases both on a company level and on an individual level, with research showing a direct correlation between giving and success.
Part of the magic of brand orientation is that it makes decision-making and leadership more effective and efficient. When all employees believe in the same set of values and strive to achieve the same ambition and purpose, then the whole organisation becomes more self-directing.
But this only works if the brand resonates with every employee at a basic human level. And that individual-level resonance demands the engagement of all employees in the definition, development and launch of the revitalized brand purpose.
Involving employees in the process of becoming brand-oriented achieves several aims:
Of course, involving every single employee from start to finish in the transformation process would likely lead to chaos. Successful brand orientation transformations typically get around this by creating task forces in the early phases of the process with selected employees. These types of groups represent people from across hierarchies, functions and geographies, and are involved in early phases like analyzing the current brand and defining the revitalized brand purpose. The involvement of the broader organisation then occurs closer to launch.
Becoming brand-oriented is one thing, but ensuring that it lasts is another. The previously mentioned steps will increase the chances of successfully becoming a brand-oriented organisation, but making sure that it remains brand-oriented demands a different set of activities.
Many aspects can be mentioned, but an often neglected one sticks out — and that is to translate brand values into clear and unequivocal financial value to the customer.
This might sound antithetical to the entire notion of brand orientation. Shouldn’t the brand supersede economic considerations? Isn’t the brand purpose something “holy”, that has meaning irrespective of the money involved? Fundamentally, yes — but if the organisation isn’t capable of translating the brand into financial benefits for the customer, then the customer will be lacking a crucial reason to buy the company’s offerings.
In a brand-oriented organisation the brand purpose informs and directs what type of unique benefits and value the customer will gain, of both emotional and financial nature.
For example, IKEA’s brand purpose is to “create a better everyday life for the many people” and its core values include a constant striving for renewal, cost-consciousness, humbleness, simplicity and enthusiasm. These are not just marketing ploys — they are all translated into financial value for the customer by providing low-cost, easy to assemble furniture that allow people for all walks of life to have well-designed furniture in their homes.
In the words of founder Ingvar Kamprad, the furniture must “reflect our way of thinking by being as simple and straightforward as we are ourselves”. Additionally, low cost is key. “The many people usually have limited financial resources. It is the many people whom we aim to serve. The first rule is to maintain an extremely low level of prices.”
In this way IKEA’s core values are translated into financial value for the customer. It is only by making a clear link between brand value and customer value that brand orientation can sustain a transformation that leads to commercial growth.
Adopting brand orientation is not for the faint-hearted, as transforming a company’s culture and philosophy is one of the hardest things one can do. But as the philosopher Spinoza once alluded to, greatness is as difficult as it is rare. And the difficulty of brand orientation is precisely why it’s so beneficial.
While the challenges of brand orientation might discourage potential adopters, the most important hurdle to overcome is the change in perspective which it demands. Like the 15th century wine press, one must have the courage to view the brand in a new light — to see the brand as more than just a passive result of marketing activities, and instead use it as an active ingredient in organisational decision making. Only then can it bring engagement, meaning and value to employees and customers — and only then can the brand’s full potential be realized.